The trait that separates major league baseball from every other game on earth is the sheer length of its regular season. At 162 games, the baseball season is twice as long as basketball and hockey, and 10 times that of pro football.
For half the year, baseball teams play almost every day. For fans, the ritual of watching games, reading box scores, and following quotidian ups and downs of a team makes baseball an essential part of daily life in a way no other sport can.
Ironically, just at the moment that baseball has rightly adopted rule changes, like the pitch clock to bring the sport back to its faster-playing roots, Major League Baseball managed the unthinkable: It made the sacred regular season far less important. How? By preventing teams with the best records from playing any games for a week straight at the start of the playoffs, the most unnatural prison sentence possible for a baseball team.
Thus, the three teams (Braves, Dodgers, Orioles) who this year won 100 or more regular season games — the classic benchmark of a great team — were each colder than ice after the enforced weeklong layoff, collectively losing nine out of 10 playoff games, and so were quickly eliminated. Note that each 100-game winner was necessarily playing against teams that had just come off winning the previous three-game series, and so were facing teams still in season form and playing well.
Face it, MLB: Keeping teams with the best records from playing baseball for a week is a huge penalty, the baseball equivalent of jail, not a reward.
The problem is extended playoff schemes, which were originally sold as just an expedient needed due to the COVID pandemic. But greedy MLB executives and owners realized they could also squeeze in a few extra playoff games if they perpetuated a system where six teams in each league qualified. If baseball insists on six teams from each league, then two teams simply have to sit while the other four play.
During its first 65 years, the World Series featured just one team from each league with the best regular season record. Then for the next 25 years, from 1969 to 1993, only two teams in each league qualified for the playoffs.
Now 12 teams, or more than a third of the entire MLB’s 30 teams, qualify for what is effectively a tournament. Is it any surprise we have Arizona and Texas in the World Series this year, two teams that not only did not win their divisions, but finished at or near the bottom in wins of all qualifying teams.
But the current format is even more insidious than that. It encourages teams to create rosters geared just for the postseason, favoring two or three pitchers who might dominate absurdly short three-game and then five-game series, rather than prizing the traditional four or five-pitcher rotations by requiring all seven-game playoff series. In short, all that matters now is getting in the dance, and having a couple of hot pitchers and hitters.
To reestablish its identity and the integrity of its regular season, baseball needs to return to a saner postseason format. The simplest and fairest method would allow only four teams from each league to reach the playoffs.
This method was used successfully from 1994 to 2011. Unfortunately after that, the so-called “expanded wild card” madness took hold, first allowing five teams in each league to qualify from 2012 to 2019, and now the six-headed hydra in each league. It’s a disaster baked into the collective bargaining agreement the players and owners reached during the holdout season of 2022. So yes, the players are partly to blame, too.
Yet there may be a fairer way forward, after all. Under the latest labor agreement, baseball is intending to expand to 32 teams. With that number of teams, the MLB could create two divisions of eight teams in each league, with the winner of each division reaching the playoffs and the additional two teams with the top records in each league also qualifying. Then the division winners could host five of seven first-round games, the winners of those games with the best record hosting five of seven in the league championship series, with the winners on to the World Series.
No system is perfect. But equally, the MLB cannot perpetuate a system that undermines its most definitive characteristic — the long daily regular season — and then penalizes its best teams for winning during that season. To do so is to throw out 150 years of tradition. After all, they are not called the Men of October. They are called the Boys of Summer.
Paul Bledsoe (X: @paulbledsoe) is an Orioles and Nationals fan from Arlington, Virginia.